Posted on April 01 2012 by Locke
This is the first entry in a series that will explore the deepest and most profound stories found in Zelda games. Sometimes these stories are central to the game’s plot; other times they’re left unnoticed. Remembering that every bit of these stories is based on in-game events, commentary, and character development, my hope is that this changes the way you experience the games and gives the real stories the attention they deserve.
Twilight Princess is a story of tragic love. Love that was too weak to repel darkness. Love whose nature opposed itself, forcing eternal separation. Love that preserved through countless generations a hope of great reunion, but lost all meaning. The restoration of the young girl Ilia’s memories is often counted as a great triumph in the love shared between her and Link, but that is also a tragedy. Its tragedy comes from eclipsing another story, a deeper tragedy. This story haunted Ilia through her seemingly joyful time with the hero, though only one could know the source of her deep sadness and loss – feelings Ilia didn’t even realize she had.
The story starts with a special horse in an ordinary village. This horse, named Epona, is employed at the local ranch herding goats, and has a very close bond with her young master Link. As they grow together, they share in the responsibilities of their work and in each other’s company. They’re both strong-willed and well-respected in the Ordon community. But as Link approaches the age at which heroes are born, his will begins to take on the burden of the expectations of the villagers. He pushes himself too hard to be the perfect member of Ordon Village, and selfishly pushes Epona too hard as well. With Link blinded by his ambition and by Epona’s attempt at living up to his expectations and hiding her insecurities, he is unable to perceive Epona’s deepest needs. Epona subconsciously compensates for what her conscious mind and body can’t bear, finding a growing affection toward the mayor’s daughter, with whom she finds relief from the rigors of work and moral burden.
Ilia cares very much for this horse. She feels that Epona is the only creature in the world who could ever understand her deepest emotions. Because of this, Ilia desires Epona to feel that she is understood as well. They make frequent visits to the spirit’s spring together after work, escaping from the oppressive Link. Ilia even makes a whistle to play Epona’s favorite song with, though she isn’t as good at playing it as Link is, so she ends up giving it to Link for Epona’s sake. While Link accepts it as a gift, Ilia and Epona both see it as a demonstration of Ilia’s great love: to care more for Epona’s happiness than for her own satisfaction in making Epona happy. This type of love is nearly impossible for humans to embrace – humans, who are naturally selfish creatures. Even an act of kindness almost always has an ulterior motive, whether the actor knows it or not, be it respect, reciprocation, or even just for the warm feeling one gets when one knows one has done good. Therefore, Ilia is unique among humans in her affinity with horses, which are naturally selfless creatures.
But Epona has lived alongside Link for so long that she can’t ignore her own affinity with him. And so it was that when the Ordon children ran off into the woods and Link calls on Epona to help find them, she sees the courage of his destiny and shares in it. The brash young Talo had ended up imprisoned in the woods, filling both Link and Epona with the moral duty befitting the one chosen with the goddesses’ courage and his horse to take responsibility for another’s life at the risk of endangering one’s own. As Link returns from work early the next day, Ilia speaks first to Epona. “The path before you is long, my sweet horse…but please bear Link safely along it.” Of course it’s Epona’s safety she’s concerned about (she may as well have said “travel” instead of “bear Link”). This concern becomes apparent immediately, when she notices that Epona has been injured – something that Link overlooked even after working with her most of the day.
“It’ll be all right, Epona. I’ll take you to the forest spring right now. Once we soothe you in the spirit’s spring, you’ll feel better in no time!” Ilia uses “we” to emphasize that it will be their togetherness that will be soothing and will make Epona feel better. In the spring, Colin explains the events that had transpired the day before. How Epona had answered the call of moral responsibility at Link’s side. Despite Ilia’s heated defense of Epona’s well-being and jealousy toward Link, she’s not blind to Epona’s deepest emotions. “So you still prefer your master over me, huh, Epona?”
Not a moment after Ilia begs Link not to try anything out of his league, something out of their leagues happens to all of them: A group of bulblins smashes through the gate to the spring, obviously with bad intentions. Epona senses their approach in time to make an escape – she knows when something is out of her league – but now she also knows that they’ve taken Ilia from her, and could only assume Link was gone as well. Following her master’s lead to save some children is one thing, but now she’s all on her own and the people who need saving are the ones she loves the most. There’s no one to lead her – no hero’s courage to draw from – but the objects of her quest spur her into action.
Though the assailants’ trail is soon lost, Epona is not left without direction. Her love tells her where to go and gives her the determination to get there. And her love does not fail her, for she is soon near enough to the hidden village to hear Ilia’s screams. Screams for help? Screams of fear? No, Ilia is in such intense pain that she is oblivious to her situation – and, indeed, any hope of relief. It is completely outside of her world. The whole of her world is pain, permeating every level of her existence, displacing everything else. Everything that had once defined her: her inclinations, her beliefs, her memories, …her love…
This is a pain that cannot be borne by one being, and Epona can feel it almost as strongly as Ilia. Worked into a rage, Epona tries desperately to tear into the physical boundary separating them. This is no longer a physical wall. It is a boundary through which Epona can see her world crumbling but do nothing to stop it. She is struggling with every fiber of her being to overcome this paramount obstacle when the bulblin patrols arrive to stop her. Startled, she flails aimlessly, kicking back a few of them before still more manage to jump on her back.
The obstacle has changed. There’s an evil organization at work here, and they must be stopped if Ilia’s pain is to be relieved. Epona picks up speed, trying to shake off her cargo. She runs, driven by the pain remains even though she’s out of earshot of the screams. As pain engulfs all of Ilia’s senses, so Epona’s are engulfed by the will – the necessity – to stop it. Though her sprint was induced by the bulblins on her back, she can’t concentrate on the shifting of their weight, on how she can shift her own to throw them off. She can only focus on the pain. If I can just run fast enough, she thinks irrationally, these heartless creatures will vanish and stop causing pain and separation.
Something familiar catches her attention as she bolts through a town. But she can’t stop now. The bulblins have fallen off, but she has to keep running. She’ll run until she’s traversed Hyrule more times than the sun has, if that’s what it takes to bring Ilia and Link back. Link… To coincide with this thought, someone else skillfully leaps onto her back. Another burden, another trial, another obstacle. Now she shifts her movements to try to shake him off. Link… This rider’s different. The bulblins had exerted all their effort to holding on despite their lack of control; this one is quite the opposite. He feels Epona’s struggles and owns them. He bonds Epona’s will with his own control. Link… Everywhere Epona goes, she begins to feel that this rider is leading her there. She begins to forget the pain and feel a bond forming with this rider, exerting his mastership. No, this bond was already there, she had only forgotten.
It doesn’t come to her like a flash of insight – she had known since she first saw him as she entered Kakariko Village – but as a sort of assurance. This is Link. The force that is working against Ilia had transferred empathetically to Epona and robbed her of control of her own destiny, but Link is in control. This is her master, whose courage had so profoundly affected her. Why couldn’t she be courageous now? That was recklessness that Link just saved her from. Had she learned nothing from working alongside him all these years? No, she can feel it now, with Link ever more determined to find Ilia. Her love for Link backs her courage. It was a stronger force that had driven that courage out of control. Ilia’s is stronger bond. Why, then, was Ilia torn away from her but not Link? Epona ignores this thought, and sets of with the love she has, searching for the love she has not.
When Ilia is finally discovered in Telma’s Bar, Epona is horrified to discover that it was indeed love that she not only didn’t but couldn’t have, driven away by evil. All of Ilia’s memory is gone. All of their togetherness in the spirit’s spring. All of her understanding of Epona. Even though Epona’s memories are still intact, she now feels like she was alone in the spring, and can no longer understand Ilia. Only now, when all of this is taken away from her, does she realize how much more Ilia meant to her than Link did. The thought returns: Why was Ilia torn away but not Link?
Link, who does all he can to help restore bits of Ilia’s memory growing closer and closer to her as Epona drifts farther and farther away. Watching Link manipulate Ilia into loving him – as if this tragedy was Link’s big chance to show how much he cared for her – is like death to Epona. By showing Ilia how special her memories of Link are, all the truly happiest moments of her life are forever gone. And with them go Epona’s, before she could begin to fully appreciate them. Yes, they both have Link as a forger of courage, but what they were forced to forfeit was even more powerful than courage.